The independent sector is making real progress in widening access and supporting state schools, says the HMC chair
29th April 2019
Mike Buchanan is executive director of the HMC and he explains that 'bashing private schools won't bring education equality.'
Perhaps we should ask ourselves why a sector that educates only 7 per cent of the population and delivers the benefits that we do, gets the bad press that Ed Dorrell refers to. While we recognise the anger of parents who cannot afford our fees, those fees are necessary to fund a first-class education. So, rather than penalise schools funded properly by paying parents, is it not up to government to ensure that it funds state education to similar levels?
Let’s be clear: hurting independent schools will not create equality of educational opportunity. Rather the opposite. We know that income, early years education, gender, ethnicity, home environment – not to mention tutoring and buying a more expensive home near a great school – all have a huge effect on children’s life chances.
Furthermore, financial penalties would inevitably drive up fees and lower numbers of free places, as most schools operate as not-for-profit on tight margins. Not to mention the fact that the many billions of pounds needed to educate the exiles from independent schools would make the chances of better per-pupil funding far more remote.
Not only do independent schools save the state money, they know what works in education and enriching children’s lives
The Times columnist Libby Purves argues that private school heads must become influencers.
It would hardly be healthy if the private sector was bullied out of existence and the only education available was government-ruled, parsimonious, and led by an ever-changing procession of education secretaries. These amateur meddlers rarely last more than two years: my son saw off five before he was ten. There is no guarantee that without private schools state ones would abruptly improve. A series of governments has underfunded, overloaded and disrupted them. It is hard to see how feeding in that extra 7 per cent of children while giving up the £4 billion in tax would help.
There is another way, beyond their slowly increasing attempts at outreach, that independent schools could add national value. They are test beds for what works. Whenever state schools are squeezed, private heads should join the argument and utter unwelcome truths. They could affirm that smaller class sizes do matter, and do improve outcomes. They could rudely say that their paying parents would not put up with disruptively overcrowded classrooms, so state school pupils shouldn’t have to put up with them either (forms of 36 or more have trebled in the past six years). They could also stir things up in a time of shrinking school music, arts and sport by pointing out that their long experience proves how these things contribute both to academic standards and happiness. They could express shock at the sale of a nearby school’s playing fields.
They should say that all children need these good things, and relate how they have helped some flourish after uncertain starts (not all independent schools cater for the brightest). They could bravely point out that the most important product of education is not a certificate, but something invisible and interior. They could say in public something they often privately remark, which is that whenever they visit a good state school they gasp “how do you manage on that budget?”
They could rock the national boat, be a ginger group, risk the contumely and stand alongside their beleaguered state colleagues. The £20 billion argument is only a start.